On August 18th, when President Trump first confirmed rumors that he was interested in buying Greenland, the American punditry chattered about it in every news outlet as an absurd joke. Trump himself seemed to play along by retweeting a meme showing a shiny gold Trump Casino towering over a Greenlandic village with the comment, “I promise not to do this to Greenland!” But as the week progressed and Trump himself, perturbed at the Danes very public denunciations of his “large real estate deal”, caused a diplomatic rift by postponing a scheduled visit to Denmark, the story line moved from humor to geopolitical strategies. Several major news outlets published op-eds from strategic wonks such as Marc A. Thiessen’s August 22 column in the Washington Post, “Trump’s idea of buying Greenland is far from absurd.”
Though seeming like another Trump diversion soon to be blown away and forgotten by the president’s next tweetstorm, the question of the Greenland Purchase continued to receive serious consideration and comment throughout the next week. Other Republicans rushed to get in front of this snowballing possibility: Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas claiming credit for coming up with the idea months ago. Seeing a fundraising angle, the National Republican Congressional Committee began hawking t-shirts emblazoned with a map of the USA that included Greenland as the 51st state.
Lost amid the groans and guffaws over the President’s evident lunacy and megalomania, was the simple fact that the entire idea rested on the racist foundations of the nation. The idea that territories can be bought and sold (Greenland has enjoyed an expanding scope of home rule since 1979) is a remnant of colonialism. Such ideas are fundamentally structured around concepts of racial and cultural hierarchies, as only territories populated by nonwhite and non-European people are ethically exempt from the liberal principles of sovereignty and therefore viewed as commodities to be traded (just as the bodies of slaves were).
The act of purchase was historically made in one of two different racist forms. Americans assuaged their slight pang of Enlightenment guilt over seizing the land of indigenous nations by the act of a ceremonial purchase and the bedrock capitalist instrument of the contract. Great powers routinely traded and swapped the lands of subject peoples with no pretense of such fictions of their equality and agreement. Both forms of colonial seizure were supported by racist notions that First Peoples were savage, incapable of self-government, and best served by the tutoring of colonial rule and the blessings of the marketplace.
Greenland is a nation comprised mostly of First Nation, Inuit people. Eight in ten Greenlanders is ethnically Inuit as is the nation’s official language. Such demographics situate Greenland well within the scope of colonial logic. That the Trump administration approached Denmark to make the sale, rather than the Naalakkersuisut, Greenland’s parliament, follows in the footsteps of countless colonial transactions of the past. Reports that Trump floated the idea of offering Denmark the territory of Puerto Rico in exchange for Greenland merely reiterates the colonial logic that all people of color inherently lack the capacity for sovereignty and are therefore fungible.
Though just a t-shirt, the RNCC’s America plus Greenland map is a powerful reemergence of the once-thought-to-be-dead idea of Manifest Destiny. In the nineteenth century, yellow newspapers printed maps showing an expanded American map with future states filled in. Prior to the Civil War, northerners and southerners whipped up their supporters by publishing maps showing how the addition of future new states would tip the balance of power in Congress. Later, immigrants were encouraged to move to the prairies by maps that showed great swaths of “vacant” land labelled as U.S. territories that were at the time held by treaty by native nations. Jingoists at the turn of the century excited interest in seizing Spain’s empire by painting those lands as future U.S. possessions on brightly colored maps.
Territorial possessions were ideal for U.S. corporations who could ignore local concerns and deal directly with Congress, a body sufficiently distant and well-greased by lobbying to attend to their profits. America’s pervasive culture of racism served to keep territories populated by a majority of indigenous and nonwhite peoples from obtaining the sovereignty and political equality that in America is known as statehood. Nebraska which was 99% white waited just a dozen years to advance from territorial status to statehood. New Mexico, with a majority of its citizens descendants from Mexico or Native America, was kept in territorial status for sixty-two years. Hawaii and Alaska were not accepted as states until their white populations had grown to at least be a plurality of voters. Likewise, Congress kept Oklahoma in territorial status because of its large indigenous population until 1907 while the petition of the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes to create state of Sequoyah was rejected. Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands remain territories today, though were they granted statehood they would collectively comprise America’s 27th largest state.
Had Denmark agreed to Trump’s sale or territorial swap, the prospects for Greenland becoming the 51st state, as the RNCC’s t-shirt suggests, would be dim, because the old colonial structures in American democracy and American discourse apparently persist into the twenty-first century.